I've been thinking quite a bit, over the last few months, about the future of high quality audio playback. In fact, I'm obsessed with this topic. I was born a music loving audiophile and I worked in enterprise information technology for a decade before starting CA. My passions for both music and technology are converging quickly to provide a better high quality experience. There has never been a better time to be a music aficionado who loves great sound quality and technology. I absolutely love the possibilities and can't wait for some of them to come to fruition. We are no longer limited by technology. The only limiting factor is our imaginations. If we can think it, we can do it.
In the not to distant future we will be streaming lossless audio, in all relevant sample rates, directly to our main audio components from a Cloud music service provider such as WiMP or Qobuz. Music, playlists, ratings, and favorites will all be stored in the Cloud. Listeners will control playback with iOS and Android apps provided by their streaming service providers. Similar to a UPnP / DLNA control point, the apps will serve as a remote control and library curation and browsing tool. In the same fashion as Google's Cast functionality, no audio will be routed through the iOS or Android device. Music will stream directly to an audio component such as a music server, digital to digital interface converter, or digital to analog converter from the Cloud. Content not available from the streaming service providers can be uploaded, purchased elsewhere, and made available for streaming with simple in app authentication, or located on one's local network attached storage device. There are a couple products capable of very similar functionality right now, namely Sonos, Spotify Connect, and the Auralic Aries / Lightning platform, but there are major differences between where we are now and where we are headed. Only lossless CD quality streaming audio will be available in the short term. During this time, high resolution content will still be purchased through traditional outlets such as HDtracks, Acoustic Sounds, and the PonoMusic store.
Past = Purchase | Present = Purchase / Subscription Hybrid | Future = Subscription
Where We Are Now
There's no need to discuss the traditional music purchasing model where consumers purchase a vinyl album or Compact Disc or download. That's the past. We all lived through it and understand the concept. I feel the same way about meteorologists discussing the weather on the 10/11 p.m. news. There's no need to cover the current day's weather. We all experienced it firsthand.
Currently most computer audiophiles store their lossless music on a turnkey server such as an Aurender or Meridian Sooloos, or on internal hard drives, external USB / FireWire / Thunderbolt hard drives, and NAS devices. Audio is either sent over USB or Ethernet to a digital to analog converter (DAC) and on to the rest of the system. Music is purchased on physical disc and ripped or music is purchased and downloaded. Music playback and library curation is done with either a keyboard, mouse, and monitor combination or through an iOS / Android device. Some users rely on subscription services like Spotify or Beats to stream lossy 320 kbps music to iOS or Android devices for music discovery and convenience. This is a hybrid purchase / subscription model where the purchased music is lossless and the subscription music is lossy.
Where We Are Going
One thing that holds true for the future of HiFi playback is the number of options will continue to grow. There is no single solution to satisfy everyone all the time. My view of where we are going with the future of HiFi is based on a combination of my own research and my own wants / needs. The major changes coming to HiFi are all related to the declining lossless purchasing model in favor of a growing lossless subscription model. As subscription based listening expands, the need for local music storage contracts. In addition, when music storage is in the Cloud (subscription model) the apps used to control playback and curation of one's library may be provided by the Cloud music subscription service provider. Thus, where we store music and how we select music for playback will be dependent on a purchase or subscription model of music consumption.
With the aforementioned ideas in mind, here is the future of high quality music playback.
- Music is obtained through the subscription model.
- All music is stored in the Cloud.
- This includes the user's music that's unavailable directly through a subscription service such as little Jonny's piano recital recorded with an iPhone from row thirty-five in the school gymnasium.
- Until all content can be stored in the Cloud a hybrid approach will be required. This will enable users to stream from the Cloud and a local NAS or USB drive.
- All music is lossless CD quality or better.
- Most custom HiFi apps are out, subscription service provider apps are in.
- Browsing one's library, selection of tracks for playback, and curating one's library is done through the music subscription service provider's iOS / Android app.
- HiFi companies can't keep up with the quality of subscription service provider's apps. WiMP has editorial teams in each country to deliver appropriate content via its app to end users. For example, one feature found in WiMP's Android app enables users to browse through its catalog and press & hold a track for additional information. This information includes metadata such as Composer, Lyricist, Producer, Mix Engineer, and Mastering Engineer, among others. The next version of WiMP's Android application will include an extension of this feature and enable users to select an item such as the Mastering Engineer's name. Once selected, all music in the WiMP catalog mastered by the Engineer will appear in the app. This functionality isn't too complex for HiFi companies to include within their own applications, but it's just a single example of a subscription service provider's constant improvement to stay ahead of the competition. Plus, WiMP is but one of the many companies offering streaming subscriptions to the HiFi market. Traditional HiFi companies can't keep updating their apps for every service provider's platform, let alone write the initial app for all the APIs (application programming interface). Every company has limited skill sets and resources. Most HiFi companies are better off sticking to HiFi components rather than iOS / Android design.
- All music is sent directly from the Cloud to a HiFi component without traversing through the remote control iOS or Android device.
- AirPlay is dead. Streaming through one's iPhone eats up too much battery and depends on the state of the iPhone to continue playback.
- Using Google's Cast type functionality enables the remote control to be in any state, including turned off, and the music remains playing as instructed previously by the user.
- A small Raspberry Pi or similar device can be used to connect the Cloud with HiFi components.
- The only computers involved will be the remote control running Apple's iOS or Google's Android operating systems and the audio component receiving the streaming content (likely running Linux).
No solution exists today that addresses all of the aforementioned items. However, some of the items are available in limited form in a limited number of countries right now. The key to all of this is integration with HiFi companies and components. In the portable listening environment one can already stream and download lossless CD quality music to an iPhone or Android device. This is due to the simplicity of the environment. The music is, for all intents and purposes, meant to stay on the portable device. Integration with HiFi components is much trickier, but it's the key to lossless streaming adoption. Currently I can stream lossless CD quality with a computer running WiMP connected via USB to my main audio system or through a Sonos Connect wired to my main system. The problem with these partial solutions is that they have major weaknesses. I don't want a keyboard, mouse and monitor to play music because there's no remote for controlling the OS X WiMP app and there never will be such a remote, it doesn't make sense. Sonos can stream lossless music from WiMP but the Sonos iOS app isn't nearly as good as the native WiMP application. The hybrid solution that will take us to the next level will combine the local music library access of the Sonos app with the advanced features of the native WiMP app and Google Cast type functionality to stream music directly to the HiFi system. To a certain extent this would be like a Meridian Sooloos, which has had the most advanced metadata and navigation in the HiFi industry for many years, with music stored in the Cloud.
Bridging the gap between the present and the future are products like the Auralic Aries. The term bridging the gap commonly refers to a temporary solution. However, the Aries will likely be the end game for many HiFi enthusiasts. The Aries and its Lightning iOS app enables access to a local UPnP / DLNA server content and the ability to browse & search Cloud content from WiMP and Qobuz. This concept is the reverse of my dream scenario of using the WiMP app with local access because the Lightning app focusses on local content with a Cloud content add-on. Even though the Lightning concept is reverse of my preference, this doesn't mean the app has problems. It's still terrific. Missing in the Lightning app are advanced metadata features for Cloud music, geo-targeted editorial content from WiMP, and a few other very minor items. The Sonos WiMP integration, as mentioned above, has more friction than I like. Meaning, it isn't a smooth experience because Sonos wants its users to create "Sonos Favorites & Playlists" and "Sonos Everything" rather than just creating favorites within WiMP that are available in any WiMP interface. Sonos must function the way it does due to its integration model and the fact it seeks to be the single interface for music playback. Enabling Sonos Playlists allows users to integrate WiMP content and local content into a single playlist. It's a really cool feature, but not a feature I use frequently. I much prefer my playlists be available everywhere through the WiMP app as that's my end game playback concept.
Spotify Connect is the closest thing to my ideal concept in that it enables users to use the Spotify iOS app and send audio directly from the Cloud to an audio device without routing through the iOS device. Spotify playlists are all stored in the Cloud and available on all devices capable of Spotify playback. Some HiFi components like BlueSound are Spotify Connect enabled. However, the big show stopper is that Spotify is lossy. Spotify doesn't offer CD quality lossless streaming or downloads. Without the same, or better, quality as my local collection or WiMP, I'm not willing to use Spotify for this very convenient feature.
iTunes users are likely interested in how AirPlay competes in this future of HiFi playback. In AirPlay's current state it just can’t compete. Routing music through a mobile device for playback on a HiFi system doesn't make sense, unless it's for casual group playback with friends. AirPlay diminishes battery life, requires the iOS device to be on or in a certain state, requires open source "hacked" software or Apple certification, and is as closed as any platform available today. AirPlay is dead without a serious overhaul.
We've been through the worst of times with the transition of mainstream playback from lossless CD quality to lossy MP3 quality. It's finally time to bring back lossless CD quality and move studio master quality from the class market to the mass market. Technology is no longer a barrier to great HiFi playback. Access to more music than Joe Sixpack could ever store at home, all in CD quality or better, is a HiFI and music aficionado's dream. Much of this dream is either a reality now or will soon be a reality for many listeners around the world. Services such as WiMP and Qobuz are strongly rumored to be coming to America and other countries this fall (2014). A few years ago listeners switching from physical Compact Discs to file based playback were overjoyed with access to their complete music collections at their fingertips. In a few months these listeners should be blown away with access to over 20 million lossless tracks for the price of purchasing a couple albums. Soon the traditional HiFi manufacturers and audio engineers can get back to what they do best, design the best performing audio gear in the world, rather than attempt to enter the realm of Apple and mobile app designers. Everyone has a speciality. Letting software developers employed by companies like WiMP lead the application charge while HiFi legends stick to bringing us better sound quality will spring our wonderful hobby into the future sooner rather than later. There has never been a more exciting time to love great music and great sound quality.